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6 Designers Explain Why Craft Still Matters In A Digital World

“Craft is more than just a way of making things; perhaps it’s a way of thinking.”

Machines are slowly creeping into every aspect of our lives, from how we communicate to how we work, along with a healthy debate over how much or how little we should resist. But there’s one area where we’ve all but surrendered to machines: what we consume. Virtually everything we buy is mass-produced.

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Still, consumers are hungry for craft, even as it becomes a casualty of industrial production. Enterprising makers have earned millions on Etsy, big-box design retailers are sprinkling small-batch offerings into their stores, and DIY design is gaining steam. This leads me to wonder: Where does craft sit in a world where digitized, mechanized fabrication is becoming more sophisticated?

The Loewe Foundation–a private cultural organization that supports performing arts, visual arts, design, and architecture–is attempting to answer that question, too, with its annual Craft Prize, an award that celebrates excellence in craftsmanship. Co.Design asked a few of the designers who were recognized by Loewe about why they think craft matters. As the winner and a handful of finalists explain, craft’s role is far from obsolete: It ties us to our history, makes us more physically aware, and empowers us creatively.

“Artisan production is always part of industrial product development.”

Ernst Gamperl, a wood carver based in Germany, won the 2017 Loewe Craft Prize for Tree of Life 2, a sculptural vessel carved from a fallen tree.

Ernst Gamperl, Tree of Life 2 2016. [Photo: courtesy Loewe Foundation]
Why wood?
Wood is a living material. For me it is one of the most versatile, elegant, and beautiful natural materials and it is enormously diverse: Every timber requires a different treatment. Most timber also smells really good when you work with it.

What’s your fabrication process like?
My works are made out of unseasoned logs of timber–mostly oak–with knots and splits. The very first–and most important step–is selecting the wood. I have a kind of dialogue with the material when I have to recognize the “hidden” object inside. Then I roughly square off a piece using a chainsaw before I turn the wood on a lathe. I create the rough external form, then I hollow it out, and then refine the outside even more. To finish the outside, I use unorthodox materials like lime, clay, vinegar, and other minerals.

What role does craft play in the age of industrial production?
It is very important to deal with digital technologies, which have their place and their importance but certain impressions, the beauty, and uniqueness of things can never be realized without a craftsman who is able to dialogue with his material. Any product development is preceded by prototype manufacturing. In other words, artisan production is always part of industrial product development–the work at the computer is of primary importance, but craftmanship, manual work, will always remain.

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Does craft matter today?
Yes, of course. It requires and promotes entire human beings, and makes people more satisfied because they can see what they have created.

“It explores the human experience beyond the visual and the cerebral.”

A visual artist based in Vancouver, Brendan Tang explores the tension of postmodernism through ceramic objects. His Manga Ormolu series are hybrids of traditional and contemporary ceramics.

Brendan Lee Satish Tang, Manga Ormolu Ver. 5.0-s, 2016. [Photo: courtesy Loewe Foundation]
Why ceramics?
It is one of the most responsive materials I have ever worked with. There are very few materials that can match the range and diversity of fabricating that this material can. It can be hand formed, wheel thrown, slip cast, and now even 3D-printed. One of the major reasons this material is appealing to me is its ability to visually mimic many other materials. In my own work I have ceramics playing the role of metal, plastic, fleshy folds, and even ancient porcelain forms. This ability to imitate allows my imagination to really run wild.

How did the Manga Ormolu series come about?
The work starts as conceptual ideas in my sketchbook. Once I have resolved the overall composition, I move to the potters wheel, where I make all the elements I will need in a piece. When the forms are leather hard, I construct the object by cutting and trimming the elements to fit together in much the same way a potter constructs a teapot. I also add illusionary pinches and folds to the vase forms–techniques I picked up from the special effects industry.

Once the form is complete and has been bisque fired, I mask off the vase form and airbrush the brightly colored glaze onto the robotic elements. After completing the brightly colored gradations and patterns on the robot parts, I move on to the painstaking process of painting the traditional blue and white elements on the pieces. These patterns cite various works from the Ming, Qing, and Yuan dynasty. The work is then put back in the kiln to be fired for a final time. Post-firing, the piece is finished by affixing the hardware elements that complete the robotic illusions of the work.

Does craft still matter today?
It plays the same role it always has, which is to explore this human experience beyond the visual and the cerebral: to explore it though our hands.

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“It slows everything down and keeps traditional techniques alive.”

Kristina Rothe, a designer based in Germany, works with paper to produce sculptures. Her Burial Object series of funerary vessels was a finalist for the prize.

Kristina Rothe, Burial object “Steps,” 2010. [Photo: courtesy Loewe Foundation]
Why paper?
I like the weight of my material and that it can be fragile, light, and stable at the same time. I like the different conditions of the paper in process. It’s a challenge to handle it when it’s a wet, unstable pulp. And I always love the surprise of a dried object.

How did you fabricate Burial Object?
I made plaster casts of round vessels with different diameters. With these molds, I constructed a new vessel. I blended hemp fibers with water and applied this pulp to the molds by hand.

What role does craft play in the age of industrial production?
It’s the important opposite to our machine-made world. It slows everything down, keeps traditional techniques alive, and enables us to make something by ourselves.

Does craft still matter today?
Yes, of course. It keeps us alive and happy. I think it’s wonderful to use or to look at handmade items. And I am sure there is a lasting joy to be surrounded by and to live with these things.

“Craft feels close to the body.”

Celia Pym, a textile artist based in the United Kingdom, explores embroidery, knitting, and darning. Her Ragpile sweater was a finalist for the craft prize.

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Celia Pym, Norwegian Sweater original damaged sweater from Annemor Sundbø’ Ragpile Collection, 2010. [Photo: courtesy Loewe Foundation]
Why textiles?
I really love the soft and thin quality to worn and loved textiles. Sometimes the cloth gets so thin and there is the most delicate remains of the yarn–it’s like the textile has become a spider’s web, held together by thin threads.

How did the Ragpile series come about?
I am interested in other peoples’ clothes and how the holes in them came to be. I like it when people talk about themselves through their clothes. For example: explaining why their sweater is their favorite because of the color, warmth, the pattern, it was made by someone they love, because they can move comfortably in it.

The Norwegian sweater [in my project] is from artist Annemor Sundbø’s collection of Norwegian knitwear that she has salvaged since the 1970s, which she calls Ragpile. Annemor has documented and written extensively about the Ragpile, about the history of Norwegian knitwear, and interpretations of the patterns and stories of the garments.

I visited Annemor in 2009. Knowing I was interested in repair, she gave me what she said was the most damaged item in her collection. It was this blue, white, purple, and black tattered sweater. Parts were felted, huge sections on the arms and back were missing. She gave it to me to repair. This was the first time I had repaired something where I didn’t know who the garment belonged to. Up to that point my experiences with repair had been to speak to the owner, figure out how the hole had occurred, how they wore the item and wore it out, and how best to fix it.

Working with this Norwegian sweater I felt more like a detective, looking for clues about how it had become damaged. For instance why was the wool felted in places? Why was one sleeve in purple, where the rest of the pattern used black? I slowly pieced the missing areas back together, using a woven darning technique and a plain weave to bridge the gaps. I did all of the repair work in white, so that I could see the damage and what was missing. I used the pattern of the sweater to guide me. On the sleeves there was so much missing knit and the holes were so big it was hard to imagine their original shapes.

What role does craft play in the age of industrial production?
I value craft for informing my relationship with materials. I value knowing the touch, the weight, the hand, the smell, and the color of the materials. Craft develops your ability to work with your hands and hold the knowledge in your body of how you play with the materials. This is an intimate knowledge and can be fun. For me, working this way makes me very aware of scale because if I’m using my hands and my muscles to construct something the scale is always in relation to my body.

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This is one way that craft feels different from industrial production. The scale, quantities, and volume in industrial production can be so large, and this feels quite abstract. Craft, by comparison, feels pretty concrete and close to the body.

Does craft matter?
Craft matters. I think it’s a really powerful thing to know you can make something, to know that that is a capacity that you have. To look at wool, wood, ceramics, metal, plastic and think, “Yeah I can do something with that.” Craft gives you that.

“Living in the era of digital images, the need for tangible and real materials arises.”

A designer based in Portugal, Patrícia Domingues turns industrial materials into precious objects, like her Many & Deliberated series of jewelry made from artificial stone.

Patrícia Domingues, Many & Deliberated, 2016. [Photo: courtesy Loewe Foundation]
Why work with artificial lapius lazuli?
Reconstructed lapis lazuli is an industrial material popular among the jewelry companies. This fake stone–which is actually a kind of plastic mix with stone powder, often quartz, and pigment–is often used in mainstream jewelry for the production of cabochons for rings or necklaces for example.

For the past few years simultaneously I have been investigating two different classes of materials: natural stone and all kinds of artificial materials. The differences in origin and material qualities between the two have been an inspiration. Until now, the study and the observation of the quality and fragility of materials has been my main way of working.

On one hand, a stone is always a unique element in the sense that in nature there are no two the same. Once a stone is cut, this action is irreversible. They have their own internal rules, full of lines and fractures. Moreover working with stone means being confronted with a world of qualities that vary, surprise, and sometimes frustrate. Stones have been in the earth for billions of years and through a process of transformation are unpredictable and therefore difficult to understand.

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By contrast, the reconstructed material is a massive industrial block. In this case, the idea of uniqueness is lost as no matter where the material is cut, the result is always the same. If with natural stone, the starting point differs each time, in this case the material is predictable and easy to control. For me, stone is an object of admiration which represents the idyllic image of nature, whereas the artificial material functions as a blank sheet of paper, devoid of personality, where I can reinvent the observations I have made in the natural world.

How did the Many & Deliberated series come about?
My creative work reflects direct contact with materials and manipulating them. Most of the time, the act of making is what leads me to find new and surprising results. I have been interested in the idea of recreating an image of a landscape through processes of fragmentation. After a long period of observing and feeling how stones break, I started provoking fragilities and tension points myself to find out how the material reacts. The resulting pieces are fractures, inscribed in a landscape which develops and liberates through the will of control and simultaneous release. I see them as accumulations of a changing image that captures the rhythms and patterns of the deconstructed and reconstructed image.

What role does craft play in the age of industrial production?
As a craftsperson, I feel these opposing ideas nourish each other. It is the antithesis for these two contrary ideas to make each other stronger. Before the industrial era, craft was the only natural way of making things, as today standing up for crafts has a more complex meaning. Personally I believe, it is exactly this relation that makes this field so exiting and leads us to reflect our own and collective materialism experiences.

Living in the era of the single-use objects, where people discard things easily, and the instant feed of digital images, the need for tangible and real materials arises.

Does craft matter?
Craft is more than just a way of making things; perhaps it’s a way of thinking. It questions the different processes of dealing with the material world, and it brings back a certain level of human dignity. Craft calms down our high-speed society. In a way, craft is a tool to connect the heritage of the past with our present.

“Craft can invest a context of regionalism and history to our convenience-based economy.”

Yoshiaki Kojiro, an artist from Japan, uses experimental processes to make glass objects.

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Yoshiaki Kojiro, Structural Blue, 2015. [Photo: courtesy Loewe Foundation]
Why glass?
I was originally an architectural designer. One holiday season, I became completely fascinated by the close relationship between glassblowers and their medium. Just around that time, CAD was beginning to be adopted in the design work. The technology made it burdensome to face PCs all day, and I came to doubt about engaging in huge development projects. I wanted to do a work closely related to materials physically so I began studying glass.

I have a strong interest in the process of things achieving their forms. Once I left an orange on the desk. I watched it turn brown and shrink without rotting. After about six months, the orange eventually became a solid object like an inelastic ping-pong ball. This experience made me realize the beauty of the hidden dynamics in the tranquil and gentle, latter part of a lifetime. So, it has been my good fortune to discover glass forming and to figure out how to transform its properties with heat and gravity. This transformation of the object is essentially a life cycle.

How did Structural Blue come about?
I fire glass using an electric kiln based on the traditional glass casting technique called pâte de verre. The main characteristic of my work is to achieve porous glass by mixing foaming agents with glass powder. Various substances can be used for foaming agents, each of which yields different properties.

In the case of Structural Blue, I used copper oxide powder as the foaming agent. The melting glass confines the gas that the oxide releases inside. The mold is filled with the foaming glass gradually, just like when we bake bread in a mold. After stopping firing when it grows to just before overflow, it begins to deflate, releasing the gas. In the final stage of this journey, the glass takes on its own form.

What role does craft play in the age of industrial production?
Because of industrial technology, we’re able to easily obtain homogeneous products with good design. In this way, we can easily enjoy the benefits of convenience and economy. However, I feel that we are losing our imagination and reducing sensitivity to materials. Craft can invest a context of regionalism and history to our convenience-based economy.

Does craft matter?
The mysterious charm things created through trial and error, while relying on experience and intuition, is an absolutely necessary element for our lives. Craft is an event that starts with a physical sense of relationship between materials and people. This spirit and physicality are related not only to creative activities, but also to the foundation of human activity.

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A selection of work from the 2017 Loewe Craft Prize winners is on view at the New York City gallery Chamber until June 6, 2017. Visit chambernyc.com for more.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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